Sola Gratia – Why It Mattered, Mattered Again, And Still Matters.

Note: This is the first ever Sunday Morning sermon Ray Ray had the privilege to deliver! Given during a 5 sermon series on the 5 Foundations of the Christian Faith.

INTRODUCTION

Thank you so much, Pastors and church family, for giving me the privilege to speak! You all are a great example of a means of God’s grace toward my family and I, and that’s what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about grace, and grace alone!

In this third week leading up to the celebration of the 500th year since Martin Luther posted his “95 Theses” as a protest against false doctrines in the Roman Catholic Church,  the event we mark as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, Sola Gratia (grace alone) is another aspect of protest we need to consider. We need to understand that this wasn’t just a subject of dispute and division in the 16th century, but a divisive subject disputed way before then and is still the same today.

Now some divisions are over secondary issues, such as baptism when it comes to how Baptists and Presbyterians define and apply it in the administration of the Visible Church. In this case, we are not debating over salvation, a Gospel issue. This debate is over the way we should worship God through the ordinances or sacraments, whichever you prefer to call them, prescribed by Jesus. Both denominations recognize Sola Gratia and do not add baptism as “do it or be damned.” Both of us consider baptism as symbolic. Without going into the details I’ll just say that Baptists and Presbyterians are to regard one another as brothers and sisters in Christ through which we are adopted by the only true and living and triune God. Conversely, when it comes to Sola Gratia, it’s a Gospel issue, an issue of the first order and we’ll see why today.

From the testimony of Scripture alone, Sola Scriptura, we see that Mankind is fickle when it comes to the Creator/Creature relationship. Also, as in the song “Come Thou Fount” that we (who profess Jesus) love, sing, and affirm, “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it. Prone to leave the God I Love.” We know and recognize that it’s not just a problem with people in the past, but is still a problem of ours today. Sadly, since we are at war with our flesh, sometimes we willingly submit to our flesh overcomes and numb ourselves against our fallen creatureliness as to not deal with it.  That’s why it is always important to step back, check our Gospel foundations, and then look at what has been built on top of them. Therefore dealing with the Soli of the Reformation, and particularly Sola Gratia today, cannot be something easily dismissed and is always something we need to consider not just once in awhile, especially not every 500 years, but daily.

For today, we are going to look at why Sola Gratia mattered, mattered again, and still matters. That is to ask, why did it matter in the days of the Apostles, why did it matter in the 16th century? And, why does it still matter now?

SCRIPTURE READING

Let’s consult our teacher, reprover, corrector, and trainer — the very word of our God. Let’s turn to Ephesians 2.

“And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you previously walked according to this worldly age, according to the ruler of the atmospheric domain, the spirit now working in the disobedient. We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and by nature we were children under wrath, as the others were also. But God, who is abundant in mercy, because of His great love that He had for us, made us alive with the Messiah even though we were dead in trespasses. By grace you are saved! He also raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavens, in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages He might display the immeasurable riches of His grace in [His] kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift – not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are His creation -created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them.” (CSB)

WHAT GRACE IS AND WHY GRACE ALONE

First, we need to establish the two things: what is grace and why grace alone?

Firstly, what can we see in this passage about grace? God has immeasurable riches of grace that He wants to kindly display to us, twice it is said we are saved by grace, and we see that from grace faith is given. That gives us some definitional content, but I still don’t feel that we have a complete definition of what it, grace, is. Is grace something abstract, just an it? Abstract or not, it seems like God possesses grace. So maybe we can find where God has revealed a bit more to add to our understanding. What we need is to know the nature of grace.

Let’s go all the way back to Moses’ encounter with God, in Exodus 34, right before God established the covenant with Moses. Moses went up Mt. Sinai and God condescended and proclaimed of Himself in verse 6:

“The LORD [Yahweh]- the LORD is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in faithful love and truth…”

We see here that the nature of grace is not just an abstract it floating somewhere between God and us, or something outside of God and us. Grace is an attribute of Yahweh Himself. Because He is gracious, He then is slow to anger and abounds in Chesed, Hebrew for “faithful love” — the particular covenantal love God has for His People.

Now, let’s look at the Hebrew which underlies our English word grace. It is the verb channun which is a verb form meaning “beseech,” “stooping down,” and/or “to bestow”. Chen is the noun form rendered “favor,” as in the favor Noah, Abraham, and Jacob found in the sight of God. What needs to be said here is that they found God’s favor, and not earn it by any means! We’ll get to that a bit later. But why did God show his grace or favor? This reason God has also proclaimed earlier, in Exodus 33:19. Yahweh says:

“…I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.”

It is Him, revealed by and through His very word alone, that has declared that His gracious self alone drives His action to be graceful. So it is, as Paul in Ephesians 1 asserts, that God:

“…is the one who works everything in agreement with the purposes of His will…” (v. 11).

Now, are the graceful actions of God arbitrary? By no means! Can we know or understand the full mind or will of God? No! Therefore we have no right and can’t hold God in contempt just because we don’t fully understand God’s intentions and actions. That puts God in the defendant’s seat and who’s on trial, God or us? Don’t be the infamous “objector” in Romans 9.  We know enough from Scripture who God is and enough evidence of His existence and goodness ultimately being portrayed in the graciously given gift of Jesus Christ.

Now, God’s grace is evidenced in differing ways. Jesus tells us in Matthew 5:45 that the Father:

“… causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous.”

This is what we can call Common Grace. Wayne Grudem, in his Systematic Theology, defines Common grace as:

“… The grace of God by which he  gives people innumerable blessings that are not part of Salvation.”

And as John Frame, in his Systematic Theology, explains that this act of grace is an aspect of the Noahic Covenant. But what we have here in our passage today is something different than that. We see here that in His grace, He saves! He gives the only thing that can justify, which is faith; not just any faith, but that justifying faith based on the work of Christ alone! So when it comes to Sola Gratia, we are specifically talking about God’s grace in the work of redemption.

From our passage today we see that our salvation is directly tied to this grace. So from that, we have our answer to what grace is. Grace is as James 1:17 states:

“Every generous act and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.”

And when it comes to Sola Gratia we read on in verse 18:

“By His own choice, He gave us a new birth by the message of truth so that we would be the firstfruits of His creatures.”

Now that we understand what grace, and “saving grace” particularly, is, we can start to answer the second question, “Why Grace alone?” Providentially, we’ve already answered the first half of it! So to make a concise point,

Why Grace alone? Because God is God alone. Again, grace is one of many perfect attributes of the only true and living God; the outflow of His holy grace is His given and unmerited favor. Given and unmerited being explained by Paul in Romans 11:6:

“Now if by grace, then it is not by works; otherwise grace ceases to be grace.”

Another question must be dealt with in order to answer the second half of “Why Grace alone?” And that question is, why is this unmerited favor necessary for salvation?  Is it because we try, but aren’t doing it the right way? Like how us guys load the dishwasher and our gracious wives quietly come behind us, open, look, and more effectively arrange the dishes for better and cleaner results! Maybe it’s like our wives seeing that we started loading and are not doing it right, then coming alongside us to direct our loading, after asking if we want their help of course. Or is it because we, by nature, don’t want to and can’t do anything at all? Like our wife loaded and washed the dishes with a smile, while we are sitting on the couch in a daze, and this always being the case.
Let’s go back to our passage.  

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you previously walked according to this worldly age, according to the ruler of the atmospheric domain, the spirit now working in the disobedient. We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and by nature we were children under wrath, as the others were also. But God, who is abundant in mercy, because of His great love that He had for us, made us alive with the Messiah even though we were dead in trespasses. By grace you are saved!

That is not a pretty picture, is it?

This is the second point of “why grace alone,” grace alone, because Man is dead alone.

In context, this passage is from an epistle, or letter, written to the church in Ephesus, but meant to be circulated throughout the churches across the land. The letter was addressed to the faithful saints in Christ Jesus. This is who Paul was talking about in our passage. All the faithful saints in Christ Jesus were at one time all that this passage describes. Paul also switches it up to say “we too,” that is to say the Jews and/or the Apostles were once the same.

This isn’t the only place where we see this, it is written throughout the Scriptures. This is evident when Paul wrote what he did in Romans 3, starting in verse 10. Here he describes man, throughout history, by pulling from the Old Testament and applying it to both Jew and Gentile in his present time.

“…as it is written: There is no one righteous, not even one. There is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away; all alike have become worthless. There is no one who does what is good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave; they deceive with their tongues. Vipers’ venom is under their lips.  Their mouth is full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and wretchedness are in their paths, and the path of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

And Paul didn’t just corner the market on the issue of depravity and inability, Jesus says Himself in John 8:34:

“Truly I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin.”

Let’s leave this here for now and move on to why this matters.

Like I said in opening our topic of today, that we should consider Sola Gratia, here and now, daily. But let’s first go back and see why Sola Gratia mattered and then mattered again.  

Why Did Sola Gratia Matter?

I know it’s anachronistic to say this, but we can see that grace alone mattered in the days of the Apostles in the early Church. In Acts 15 we read of a dispute that went down between Paul and Barnabas, and a group of Judaizers at Antioch. This dispute was of such seriousness that it ended up being debated ultimately by Paul in the midst of the Apostles, elders of the early Church, and the Pharisees in Jerusalem. Some of the finer details of this event between Paul and Peter, or Cephas interchangeably, are written in Galatians 2.

Already we see in the early time in our history, grace alone (and thus faith alone) was challenged. This challenge was so big, as we see in Galatians 2, that Barnabas, who was on mission with Paul was lead astray by the hypocrisy that was going on. What was that Hypocrisy? It was that these Judaizers and Pharisees were telling the Gentile Christians that they must be circumcised and keep the law of Moses or they could not be saved. They basically said that there still must be works on the part of Man in their own redemption. Now by reading both passages, we can see that Paul called out Peter which probably lead to Peter bringing a statement that hushed all the rest that were there. In Acts 15:6 Peter said:
“Brothers and sisters, you are aware that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the gospel message and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he also did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith.  Now then, why are you testing God by putting a yoke on the disciples’ necks that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus in the same way they are.”

There in that last sentence, the hammer came down. We, the Jews, are saved just like the Gentiles! It is only through the “grace of the Lord Jesus” alone, the gift of God’s holy grace alone in which people are saved; being justified by the grace of faith alone. A people who, as the Gospel According to John states in 1:13:

“…who were born, not of natural descent, nor of the will of the flesh, or of the will of man, but of God.

It mattered because the Law was a yoke that none of them or their fathers were able to bear. Which is basically what Paul states in Romans 2:19-20, that the Law was not meant to justify, but to shut mouths. He also says in Galatians 3:11, that no one will be justified the Law. The Gospel is that Jesus alone fulfilled the Law for them, and if Jesus didn’t, they’d still be dead!

It also mattered because there is only one Gospel, and if someone comes with another Gospel, that the Apostles didn’t preach from the beginning, Paul declares in Galatians 1:8, “a curse be on him.” Or as the ESV translates and renders the Greek anathema  let him be accursed.” This is strong language used here to say, let them be excommunicated!

Why Did Sola Gratia Matter Again?

Though there were prior disputes over such matters after the 1st and before the 16th Century, Grace Alone (among the other concepts we are speaking on this month), came under attack in a grand way again. This time it surrounded around an Augustinian Monk by the name of Martin Luther.

Luther, after putting aside law for clergy work, became a well studied and serious Monk. He devoted his whole being, body and soul, to this type of life. He adhered to the rules and regulations as proposed by the church to make his salvation sure. He was so to the letter that it has been said that the Fathers of the Order had to tell him to stop bringing all the small trivial things and only confess when he’d have a big sin like murder or adultery.

The sacrament of Confession wasn’t enough to find peace with God. [ As Pastor Beatty stated that Luther found God only to be judgmental with no love to be found.]

Another big thing that got Luther thinking was his involvement with the Mass. The Mass is another one of seven sacraments, and as Luther studied, it is where the individual actually meets, physically and spiritually, with Christ. Because of this, Luther, in his literal seriousness, asked “If Christ is encountered in the Mass, on what grounds can the individual recipient be deemed at all worthy for this encounter,”  and he found an answer in the church tradition of the Pactum, which is summed up as: do your best and God will treat you as if you’re worthy. This lead him to ask how he could know if he was doing his best and eventually lead him to a disparaging question, “How can I, a sinner, find a gracious God?” 

In following years he studied and taught on the Psalms and Romans and it was this that shaped his answer to the above question. The early Luther answer was in the vein of: man simply acknowledging their hopeless sinfulness and accepting the justice of God’s condemnation upon them. Seeking no longer to assert self over against God, or as a basis for approaching God, one should approach God with a spirit of humility and self-condemnation. This early thought lead to his later position: That Man is so sinful, it can’t stand before God in its own strength; that the only basis for approaching God is ultimately God’s own mercy, not humanity’s merit.
It was from this attitude that he then turned and was astonished by the abuse of the selling of indulgences, A tangible certificate of the freedom of a soul from purgatory or forgiveness from sin — saving grace being dispensed by the church in trade for money. This was just the beginning of what would set the stage for a discussion that Rome didn’t really want to have. That’s because, after this, a bunch of other Roman Catholic traditions, such as Purgatory and transubstantiation would be fully on trial and denounced by the Protestants.

In the book Why The Reformation Still Matters, Tim Chester and Michael Reaves explain that the sacraments of the Roman Church are like shots of “spiritual Red Bull.” In a way, this trades the Sacrificial System of old, where man would give to God through the mediation of a God-supplied Priest, for a Sacramental system, where God would give grace that was merited by Christ through the mediation of the Church alone, “Sola Ecclesia.”

Now, Rome wouldn’t have had a problem had the tagline been “Prima Gratia” or grace first. This is what they believed. Grace, as a sort of force, is the first cause in Salvation, but to them, not the only cause as in Sola Gratia. They had taken the grace of God, that is what it is because our God is gracious, and turned it into an abstract force to be given, given again, and again. This is perpetual even after the death of those in Christ who still may need this force until they are able to be accepted into heaven (in the case of indulgences and baptism for the dead)

Also, they have taken to themselves to be the mediary who dispenses grace to the people who have taken the effort to come to the sacrament instead of it being gracious actions directly given by God alone, and in the case of “saving grace,” through faith in Christ alone.    

So to sum it up, why did it matter again? Not just because people were being robbed of finances by an emotionally driven argument; not just because Rome was teaching pure falsehood; not just because people were being sold into slavery with no real hope to hold on to, because they had to hope in themselves first.

It mattered because Rome was robbing the world of the joy of salvation from the gracious God who has revealed Himself, maintained His word and promises, who has done everything because we can do nothing in our fallen state, and has called us to rest in Him!

Why Does Sola Gratia Still Matter?

Now, it’s easy to see, through Biblical History, really, even as far back as David in Psalm 51, why grace alone matters. We can also see why after centuries it still mattered the same. But again, only a half-century later, it may seem hard to realize the depth and breadth of why it still matters.

Satan has been a liar from the beginning and is just as crafty, if not more. This combined with our own depravity is a damning concoction. From the Apostles to Luther, it was a long time where small seeds of heresy were left unchecked, growing into poisonous tares among the wheat. We shouldn’t be surprised about this, Jesus described this pre-eternal age in that parable. So we must move on to see the relevance of this Sola today.

Rome is still despising their “shots of abstract grace” and the world is peddling a false justification that steals principles from God while shouting that they don’t need him. We also face challenges from movements like Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Open Theism, Universalism, Deism, and many more that distort and destroy all the concepts of the Five Soli. And sadly, those who have proclaimed Protestant Orthodoxy have headed back to Rome, the Judaizers, or wayward Israel, and ending right back where it all started in the garden.

Let’s consider again the pre-grace description in our main passage. Like me in the past, yes I am speaking from my own experience, you may have likewise said or would say right now, “That’s not me, it surely can’t be! I was never dead; maybe, at most, a cripple! I never seemed to be that disobedient, especially compared to a lot of those around me. Yeah, so I did “follow some fleshly desires” in the past, but surely a loving God wouldn’t be wrathful toward me, would He!?

We need to understand that our ideas and feelings on this matter do not produce what is true. It’s not us, the creatures, who get to explain our reality, it is God who perfectly knows us and explains to us in Jeremiah 17:9:

“The heart is more deceitful than anything else, and incurable—who can understand it?”

And in Luke 6:45 we read:

“For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.”

We’ve seen from Sola Scriptura, that the Scriptures are the God-breathed, sole infallible rule of faith. And in those, God spoke to us through Proverbs 9:10 saying:

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.”

And that, in Colossians 2:2-3, Paul wrote to the faithful brothers and sisters so that they’d:

“… have all the riches of complete understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery—Christ.

Why? Because:

In him [Christ] are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”

To make this point short, and If you know my apologetic, we have no knowledge, knowledge here being defined as justified true belief, apart from God! The truth is what all mankind has suppressed, according to Romans 1:18-32, and is what is called unbelief. This manifests itself in many ways, even those who are in Christ still go on to struggle with it at times.

And it comes down to a great quote that I love from R.C. Sproul, that “It is one thing to believe in God; it is quite another to believe God.” From God’s Word we know and must accept that we, as regenerated followers of Jesus, were once dead God-Haters, but the Gospel is that, like Peter in Matthew 16:17, we are blessed “because flesh and blood did not reveal this to [us], but [the] Father in heaven.”

Peter saw the evidence of the ministry of Jesus, yet it was not because of that and Peter’s reasoning abilities. It was given from the Father to Peter, that’s why he could call Jesus the Christ! Again, like Peter, we did not come to this conclusion on our own terms and merit. It was given and revealed to us by the awesome God that we serve.

Why did I say that some have gone all the way back to the garden, this either in principle or fully? Today we still buy into that old lie, the lie of autonomy. Some have left biblical principles and believe that we can come to righteous conclusions on our own, without any authority but our own reasoning. The idea of autonomy is a borrowed principle from a unscriptural philosophy of man and has been forced into the text of Scripture. This is why people can read passages like ours today, scoff at what it says, invent some emotional justification for dismissing it and not dealing with what God, who knows all, has said. And guess what? Even I still deal with unbelief such as autonomy every day. It’s from this lie that any non-orthodox religion, either blatantly aping Scriptural Christianity or not, spring. This is because every system of thought borrows from Christianity.

We must let go of what we think of ourselves, our condition, our situations and wholly take God at His word, for what it is! And because of that, we know that we are image-bearing creatures who are not autonomous, but derivative from the gracious God that has done everything according to His will. Only then we can understand the absolute beauty of the Gospel and the ocean of grace that, according to Crowder’s song, we’re all sinking in; being able to call out “ABBA FATHER” and sing at the top of our lungs, “Oh how He loves us!”

So to make the point, why does Sola Gratia still matter? We can easily become Tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine, enslaved by the cults of the world, or ideas thereof, that say like Rome, do your best and then grace will follow, making you a slave of your conscious or a boaster in your works, which Isaiah 64:6 says are like polluted garments.   

In Conclusion

Though we speak of the Reformation as a one time event, the concepts were meant to live on. Like Luther’s first of the ninety-five theses states:

“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”

we can say the same for reformation. Really, the Reformation was about repenting about what the Scriptures , grace, and faith are; who Jesus truly is and what He truly did; what the ultimate Goal of God’s designed reality is; and that God’s gracious acts of creation, covenant, revelation, and salvation are sufficient in themselves for His purposes in redeeming a people, made up of all peoples, unto Himself. So we must live always reforming, or Semper Reformanda, always coming out of our darkness to the Father of lights; whose word is a lamp to the light of the world; who gives true light to see that our works are accomplished in God… alone.
Now that we have taken in the word of our God, I would like us to take some time to reflect on His word and let it lead us to praise the graciousness of Him who has brought the dead to life! This invitation is two-fold today:

Firstly, In my prayers I often ask,  “Jesus, what would you say to us, the local body, if you were to write a letter like you did to the seven churches in Revelation.”

Concerning the word today, I want us to ask God and ourselves, are we like the church in Laodicea? Are we not hot or cold, but lukewarm? I know Jesus had some hard words for them, but it was out of love for them that he called to them because they were acting like they didn’t need Him. Christian, today if this describes you come and repent of mixing the works of the flesh with the works of the Spirit, we know that there is no condemnation, but only grace! Come rest in the work of your God and realize, as John 3:21 states, that all your works have been carried out in God.

And secondly, to those who have come to hear and observe and not professed Jesus as Lord, THERE IS HOPE!! As I’ve said, Romans 3 says that there is no one who seeks for God. If you have come here truly seeking him, that is evidence that the Spirit is working in you! Come, kneel, not before me, not before the pastors, but before the Great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ! Come that we, the church can rejoice with you and mirror the party that is going on in heaven because you were lost, and found. You were dead, but now ALIVE!

Let us pray and ask God for what we need and then praise the glorious grace of our God!

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